Hartbeat CEO Thai Randolph Talks Pushing Boundaries in Storytelling and Doubling Down on Inclusion Efforts

Hartbeat CEO Thai Randolph Talks Pushing Boundaries in Storytelling and Doubling Down on Inclusion Efforts

Behind Kevin Hart’s growing media empire is a veteran marketing exec on a mission to empower, educate, enlighten and entertain through storytelling. Hartbeat CEO Thai Randolph, who previously worked at companies including Sony and Facebook, last year oversaw the merger of Laugh Out Loud and Hartbeat Productions and led the combined company’s $100 million capital raise. Now, she’s working to continue the momentum following a year of growth and change.

With dozens of projects in the works — including a popular YouTube sports interview series (Cold as Balls), a bit of drama (Netflix’s True Story), and a weekly SiriusXM show (Straight From The Hart with Kevin Hart) — their goal under the new banner is to meet consumers wherever they are.

“We’re not pigeonholing ourselves into one brand or one segment of comedy,” Randolph says. “We strive to do really high-impact entertainment. Someone who worked with us in the past used to call it ‘highest common denominator entertainment.’ When we are performing at our highest, we are bringing folks together from different walks of life, from different perspectives, and they’re able to find a light and levity in something.”

Up next, Hartbeat is heading to Sundance with the second cohort of creative fellows from Women Write Now, a screenwriting and directing incubator formed in partnership with Sundance Institute. Thanks to a distribution pact with NBCUniversal, three short films from the 2021 class (Black Karen, written by Danielle Nicolet and directed by Meagan Good; Buddy and Bernice, written by Wilandrea Blair and directed by Gabrielle Dennis; and Take the Job, written by Moni Oyedepo and directed by Bresha Webb) are streaming on Peacock.

Before heading to Park City, and a year after Hartbeat in its current iteration was formed, Randolph talked with The Hollywood Reporter about expanding their endeavors, the importance of seeing yourself reflected on screen, and the company’s mission to “keep the world laughing together.”

What have been some of the signposts in your career so far that led you here?

My career has been more of a river than a ladder, and it’s interesting what I picked up and deposited along the way. A few years ago, I kind of crystallized a mission statement as part of an exercise, and it was pretty simple. It was to build businesses and tell stories that empower and educate and enlighten and entertain. I’m very fortunate in the role that I’m in now to be able to do that. I’ve been in the Kevin ecosystem longer than I’ve been with any other company, five plus years now, and it’s been because there’s so much opportunity and terrain to cover in terms of how to deliver this mission. It was such a big vision. It’s been a really thrilling ride, and I actually still feel like there’s so much more to do. I haven’t had a single day of boredom in the last five years. Exhaustion maybe. Boredom, not so much.

What would you say were the highlights of the past year?

It was a whirlwind year in a positive way. We started the year off January 1, 2022 with the official merger of the company. That’s when Hartbeat, as we know it now, was born from Kevin’s two entertainment companies Laugh Out Loud and Hartbeat Productions. Then toward the end of April we closed a $100 million capital raise from private equity partners. It’s been a year of constant movement, constant momentum. Our studios team is very active and we ended the year with over 70 projects in development with various entertainment partners from Peacock and Warner Bros. Discovery, to Audible and SiriusXM. We nearly doubled the size of the team. We outgrew our headquarters in Encino and just finalized deal to expand into what was OWN’s old space at the Formosa lot. So, by every measure, the team has experienced just tremendous growth. We doubled revenue and created amazing content with great partners and great creators. I’m feeling incredibly grateful right now for all the momentum, all the growth, and just the tremendous showing by our team who did incredible things.

What have been the biggest changes in the company since you joined?

I started working with Kevin with Laugh Out Loud, which was a joint venture that he had with Lionsgate. At that time, the business was a multi-platform media company, but more digitally leaning. Both Hartbeat Productions and Laugh Out Loud existed in service of this mission to keep the world laughing together. It was obviously a one plus one equals three, or one plus one equals $1 billion, proposition. I think what’s changed the most is how we delivered on that mission.

We started out with this app on the Laugh Out Loud side and this film and TV banner on the Hartbeat Productions side, and now we’ve structured the company into this integrated flywheel that’s able to make, market and monetize any type of comedic IP, and has become one of the most sought-after creative engines for some of the biggest streamers, platforms and brands. Whether we’re producing a Super Bowl spot for one of our brand partners, a radio show on our channel on SiriusXM, a 90-minute movie, or a short form series that debuts on Roku and then is repackaged to a film that is distributed with another partner, or any of the amazing shows that we have on Peacock.

So, what’s changed the most is how agile and innovative we’ve become about delivering on that mission. In many ways it is the foundation of our strategy. It’s whenever, wherever audiences want and need to laugh. Over the last few years there’s been more to divide and depress the global population than ever before, from pandemics to economic instability and just a generally divisive atmosphere when you look across social feeds. We’re not saying that we’re healing all mankind, but there are social, mental, and emotional benefits to laughter. If we’re able to provide relief, or a little bit of light and levity to anyone at any moment of the day, that’s something that we hold really important and precious.

What’s up next?

We’ve got a number of projects in the pipeline. We are going to Sundance with Women Write Now. We were supposed to take the first cohort of fellows to Sundance in 2022 and we couldn’t, so we held a really beautiful event for them here during Oscar weekend in LA and announced installment two. We’re kind of in a full circle moment as we get ready to take the second cohort to Sundance. The team has just been incredible. There will be other activations around creative partnerships there.

In February, we will be in South Africa. We announced a partnership around Advertising Week Africa, where we’ll debut the Hartbeat Experience. That will include a number of live comedy shows, we’ll have music integration and also a segment called Branding With Hart, which is focused on creators and marketers and technologists, really thinking about the space that we sit in and where the industry’s going from a business perspective. It’s a great opportunity for Hartbeat executives to connect with creators and other partners around the world and create this bidirectional exchange.

And I think we have something like seven upcoming creative projects that will be announced between January and February.

What have been some of your favorite Hartbeat projects so far?

I’m deeply proud of all of our work, but the storytelling that we did with True Story on Netflix was an entirely different turn for Kevin, and an entirely different turn for the company. Then there are other programs that we have like Cold as Balls. It’s this silly show. It’s athletes and Kevin in an ice tub. We’re on like our six or seventh cycle of it. It’s just one of those things that brings people together. It still has so much stickiness and I love to see the longevity of programming like that. We’ve had Proctor and Gamble on as a partner from our first season, and they’re not just sponsors they’re real cool storytellers with us in that experience. I’m really proud of the work that we do with brands and the way that we connect. We did a project for Sam’s Club where we shot a trailer for a film that we never made and it was theatrically distributed. People would call me saying, ‘Oh my God, we saw your trailer in the theater. When is the film coming out?’ I love when we push boundaries from a storytelling perspective.

And I really love the diversity of content that we’re creating. Our goal is really to surround the consumer wherever you are. If you’re in your car and you’re turning on SiriusXM, we’re gonna make you laugh there. If you are streaming across any platform, we’re there. If you’re watching the Super Bowl, we might have produced one of the spots. If you’re in a theater, you will encounter us. And when you wanna go to an arena and have an IRL shared experience, Hartbeat is still serving you. I’ve really thoroughly enjoyed all of that. I consume content in all of those places, and it’s probably most gratifying when I hear other people say that they’re consuming it in those places too.

What is a project you enjoyed recently that you weren’t involved with?

This is not a comedy, but it is top of mind because I just watched the finale episode. I thought Queen Sugar from Ava [DuVernay] was just so beautifully done and it was a reminder of how seen people feel when specifically addressed. The story is about a family that owns a sugar cane farm in Louisiana. I grew up on a farm in South Carolina. My family actually grew sugar cane and made our own syrup when I was a kid. Seeing this beautiful representation of black women and this family that looked like my family and these episodes that were so beautifully shot and directed by women. It was just a real inspiration. There’s still more stories to be told, and there are all of these communities within audiences that are still yearning to be addressed. I didn’t even know that part of me wanted to be seen or reflected so much until I watched, and I’ve been a big fan. So kudos to that team.

How far would you say the industry has come in terms of representation?

More content is being made, and as more content is being made, you’re seeing more diverse representation show up on screen. And content distributors and brands are pledging dollars and percentages of budgets to black-owned media and are pledging to maintain standards with accurate representation. Quantitatively, we’re seeing the needle move. My sitting in this seat and having an organization that is over 70 percent people of color and about 53 percent women, change is happening in the industry, and it’s made possible by folks who believe in that change.

But there’s always more work to do. We are really proud of the diversity of our team, and not because it’s a goodwill effort. It’s key to our strategy. Our mission is to keep the world laughing together. How would you do that if you don’t have a reflective and representative team? We put together the most qualified group of individuals who could help live in service of that mission. It’s also reflective of the audience that we’re serving. We’re 72 percent people of color. The world is over is 80 percent people of color, but that gets lost sometimes because you don’t see that reflected. So, it feels like what we’re doing is an anomaly when it’s actually very reflective and representative.

But, even with us, we felt there’s more that we could do. With Women Write Now, we said what’s the area that we can uncover where you see something, you say something and you do something about it? As we were putting together writer’s rooms [for Hartbeat projects] and we were calling on directors, we were seeing the same types of folks. We said, look, we need to make sure that we’re doing something to change the narrative here, and we need to do it urgently. Hence the name Women Write Now. We called Sundance Institute and they immediately gave an emphatic yes to help cultivate these artists. The next call we made was to Chase Sapphire, who immediately said yes we want to support in a way that amplifies these women’s voices. NBCU Peacock came on and said we want to distribute these films. So there was this amplifying effect. We never wanted Women Write Now to be an initiative. We wanted this to be a career accelerator, an incubator in the way that you would see in the business world. We wanted it to be a call to action. So, the KPI there is are we getting writers working? Are directors coming through here and leaving with projects that they can merchandise, a calling card? And is that leading to bigger opportunities with us and beyond?

What are some of the areas that still need the most change?

It’s easy for anyone to say, oh, all this change is happening, so we’re fine. The numbers haven’t moved that much, by the way. That, to me, is the biggest risk and the biggest area for improvement because the progress that has been made is easily undone. There’s so much more work to do that we should not be seduced by the efforts that we as an industry have made. We should double down our commitments to continue to drive equity, to continue to drive inclusion. Not because we’re doing anyone a favor. Every company in the industry should understand that we are serving a more diverse and connected global economy than ever before. It’s not goodwill. It’s the force for growth and it’s future-proofing your business. That’s our ethos, and it’s a drum that we’ll continue to beat because we feel it’s so important.

 Interview edited for length and clarity. 

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